In Iraq, Knowing When to Hold ’em — or Fold ’em

By: Joseph L. Galloway

Will Rogers said that the first thing you do when you find yourself in a hole is quit digging. All the signs out of the nation?s capital indicate that President George W. Bush — who’s in a very deep hole of his own making in Iraq — is about to ask for a bigger shovel.

The word is that Bush is tilting toward the most dangerous option of all the recommended moves he has on his desk: A temporary “surge” of an additional 20,000 to 30,000 American troops thrown into the bloody agony that’s Iraq today.

If he chooses this option, it will be against the best advice of the American military commanders on the ground, the unanimous opposition of the service chiefs in the Pentagon and the most thoughtful military analysts in and out of uniform.

It’s clear that the surge option will break the Army and Marine Corps, already stretched so thin that they’re barely able to meet the current requirements for maintaining a force of 140,000 troops in Iraq and some 20,000 in Afghanistan, leaving few if any in reserve for emergencies elsewhere.

The additional troops for a Bush surge in 2007 could be found only by extending indefinitely the combat tours of troops finishing their second or third deployments to Iraq, accelerating the deployment of replacement divisions and brigades by cutting their time at home short of the promised 12 months and tapping even more National Guard and Reserve troops.

The buzz phrase for such a move is “doubling down,” a gambler?s term for upping your bet when you?ve already lost a bundle. Another and far more apt description would be: Throwing good money after bad.

The wisdom of doing this, and throwing additional troops into the bloody cauldron that’s Baghdad, the sprawling cockpit of the Iraqi civil war, is very much in question.

In late summer, American commanders sent about 10,000 U.S. troops into Baghdad in a mini-surge that they hoped would calm the death squads filling the streets with corpses. This operation was a complete failure: Sectarian killings increased. The American death toll did, too. And one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the American effort proved to be our man in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

This week, as former secretary of defense Donald H. Rumsfeld strutted off into the sunset with dubious words of praise from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney ringing in his ears, Bob Gates became the new Secretary of Defense and inherited an unmitigated disaster.

Soon we’ll see if, as Gates promised Congress, he’s willing to tell the president the unvarnished truth: That there are no good options for victory in Iraq; that there is no hope of victory and vindication for anyone in Iraq; and that the only real option is to declare mission accomplished again and pull our troops out as swiftly as humanly possible.

We’ve already spent nearly half a trillion dollars and the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans and scores of thousands of Iraqis on a war born out of a president?s ego and the pipe dreams of a whole horde of neo-conservative dark princes.

Sending in more Americans for six or eight or 12 more months won?t result in victory, only more death and dying. Surging deeper into quicksand is not a recommended solution. Staying a course that’s failed is no way to rescue your reputation and secure your legacy as anything but the worst president in history.

The obvious alternative to a surge — standing up more Iraqi Army and police units and filling them with many more American advisers — is little better. It is, in essence, handing over American hostages to the various parties in this civil war who each control their segments of those Iraqi forces.

What we can do is get out of the middle of the crossfire, stand way back and let the Iraqis discover for themselves that nationhood and peace are far better than foreign occupation, civil war and people slaughtered by the millions. Or continue into a very uncertain future as a collection of tribes with flags, guns and unfettered hatred for one another.

That’s a decision for the Iraqis to make, and their time for deciding is fast running out. It’s not a decision for The Decider, whose every action has unleashed only more violence and death in a land with a history of too much of both.

Double down, Mr. President? Or get smart?

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